Landowner unable to claim adverse possession over land subject to street easement

by Victoria Heldt

Donald Hector, et al. v. Gary Hoffer, et al., City of Adrian
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, December 12, 2011)

This case involves an undeveloped street easement in the City of Adrian, Minnesota.  The easement was granted in 1891 in order to develop Second Street, but the street was not developed towards the western end.  The Hoffers and the Lonnemans own property on the southern edge of the easement while the Hectors own property to the immediate north and west of the easement.  The Hectors bought their property in 1995 and the Lonnemans and the Hoffers both acquired their properties between 2005 and 2006.  Neither of the deeds conveying the property contained rights to the land under the easement.  When the Hoffers and the Lonnemans purchased their properties, a wire fence and a row of volunteer trees ran through the middle of the easement.  Both the Hoffers and Lonnemans found them to be an eyesore and wanted them removed, but the Hectors disagreed.  Thinking that the fence and trees were on city property, Mark Hoffer asked the city zoning administrator if he could remove them.  The zoning administrator said yes because he believed they were on a city right of way, but the Hectors objected.  After receiving permission from the city administrator, the Hoffers and Lonnemans removed the fence and trees.

The Hectors filed suit in district court initially only making claims against the Hoffers and the Lonnemans.  The Hectors sought a declaration that they owned the property either by title or by adverse possession and requested damages from the Hoffers and Lonnemans for trespass and for the removal of the fence and trees.  The Hectors also claimed that a drain tile (installed by the Hoffers and the Lonnemans) caused drainage onto one of their driveways. Later, the complaint was amended to include counts of trespass and conversion against the City.  The City, the Hoffers, and the Lonnemans all sought summary judgment.  The court granted summary judgment to the City, noting that its advice had been “based on a negligent misrepresentation of law, which is not actionable.”  The court additionally found that the Hectors owned the Property underlying the easement up to and including the fence line but not the property south of the line.  It concluded that the Hoffers and Lonnemans had trespassed and awarded the Hectors $200 in damages for the loss of the fence.  The Hectors appealed.

In its analysis, the Court first noted that, pertaining to the underlying interest of a public easement for a street, any abutting landowner has an interest in the property up to the middle of the street.  Subsequently, under the general rule, the Hoffers, the Lonnemans, and the Hectors would own their respective property underlying the easement up to the center line of the easement.  The Hectors first argued that they own all of the land under the easement since they own two intersecting sides of the land underlying the easement.  The Court focused on the fact that the original platters of the land owned the land both to the north and to the south of the easement.  Due to this fact, when the land was platted into blocks and the title of the Hectors block passed to them, they only took title up to the center of the street line.

Alternatively, the Hectors argued that they owned the entirety of the property under the easement due to adverse possession.  In order to claim property by adverse possession, a party must prove that it has used the property exclusively and continuously for 15 years.  The Hectors argued that Leander Ruffing, the previous owner of their property, had used the land exclusively for over 15 years.  The Court acknowledged that it is not necessary for the current owner to prove continuous ownership for 15 years and that the previous owner’s use could be accounted for in determining adverse ownership.  However, the Court still found that the Hectors failed to prove adverse ownership of the property to the south of the fence since that was not claimed to be used by Ruffing.  The Hectors’ warranty deed was dated October 1995 and they could not prove 15 years of use before the Court’s order in April 2010.  In addition, Victoria Hector herself admitted that the Hoffers and the Lonnemans used a portion of the easement to the south of the fence for a utility trailer.  This fact shows the Hectors did not maintain exclusive use of the property, and therefore the claim for title by adverse possession failed.

The Hectors also challenged the $200 in damages and the court’s failure to assign damages for the loss of trees.  Historically, the amount of damages due for a loss of trees has been measured by the difference in the value of the land before and after the removal of the trees.  The Hectors failed to prove that the value of the land had changed due to the loss of the trees.  Additionally, there was no evidence to show that the trees served an aesthetic purpose.  The Court affirmed the district court’s measure of damages.

The Hectors further argued for punitive damages.  In order for punitive damages to be appropriate, a showing must be made that the defendant “showed deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”  Since the Hoffers and Lonnemans did not think the Hectors owned the trees or the fence (based on comments from the city zoning administrator) they did not show a “deliberate disregard” for the Hectors’ rights.  Consequently, the Court found punitive damages to be inappropriate.

In regards to the claim against the City, the Court found that, even if the district court’s summary judgment were reversed, it would have a minimal affect on the lawsuit since the Hectors were already awarded $200 in damages.  The Court affirmed the district court’s decision.

Grant of land for county highway was an easement; land could be included to meet minimum acreage requirement

by Victoria Heldt

Wade Berger and Ilona Berger v. Town of New Denmark, William Kreuger, Norbert Buresh
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, January 10, 2012)

The Bergers own two contiguous plots of land in the Town of New Denmark.  The two plots are zoned for Agricultural use.  Since 2003, they have been attempting to obtain building permits for both plots.  The Town’s zoning ordinances require a plot to have at least 35 acres in area in order to grant a building permit.   At a meeting before the Town Board, Wade Berger demonstrated how part of plot A had been added to plot B so that plot B would comply with the 35 acre requirement.  In addition, the Bergers purchased additional property next to plot A in order for plot A to comply with the requirement.  In the presentation, Berger showed each plot having 35.190 acres.

The Town denied their request, claiming that the plots did not meet the 35 acre requirement.  They argued that the land over which County Highway T ran should not be included when totaling the acres.  When excluded, the parcels only totaled 34.5 acres each.  The Town argued that the Selners, the previous owners of the land, had granted full title of the property underlying the highway to the Town in the 1950’s when the road was constructed.  The district court ruled in favor of the Town.

On appeal, the Court focused primarily on the language that described the conveyance of property in the 1950s.  The title of the document read “Conveyance of Land for Highway Purposes.”  The Court noted that in previous cases, it was recognized that municipalities did not receive ownership of land used for a highway, only a right of way over such property.  It further pointed out that the language “right of way” used in the conveyance strongly suggests it was granting the County a “right to a reasonable and usual enjoyment” of the land and not full ownership rights.  It found that, unless clearly stated otherwise, a granting of land for the purpose of a highway is meant to serve only as an easement. As a result, both plots were determined to be over 35 acres.

Since this decision only clarified the plot’s compliance with the 35-acre requirement and not whether it is otherwise eligible for building, further proceedings were necessary.  The Court reversed the district court’s decision and remanded it for further judgment.

Archives

Categories